Released in 2006 exclusively for Nintendo platforms (Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, and as a launch title for the Wii) with a PlayStation 2 port in 2007, Downhill Jam has quite a few credits to its name. It was the first Hawk game to radically deviate from the core formula, it was the first ‘spin-off,’ it was the first title not developed by Neversoft, and it was the first time that not one but TWO Tony Hawk games came out in the same year.
After 2005’s American Wasteland, the series underwent some changes, when they decided to drop the stupid and go back to the skating. I mentioned last week that that led to Project 8, a game that felt like a step forward, but a step back at the same time. However, how could you take the core Tony Hawk formula and adapt it to THIS?
The answer was not to, or at least not in the way you’d think. Instead of a port of Project 8 with questionable motion controls, we got something completely different. A Tony Hawk racing game. You know something else? It was great.
With Neversoft sticking to what they do best, we got a different developer for Downhill Jam. Enter Toys For Bob, a company that you may be unfamiliar with (they mostly do Skylanders stuff these days), but they aren’t inexperienced with skateboarding games. Remember that Disney skateboarding game that was a essentially a re-skin of Pro Skater 4? They made that.
Downhill Jam was memorable in that it didn’t play like any of the Tony Hawk games before it. Instead of busting tricks and banking high scores, it was a racing game, with the main goal being to get to the end before any of the other racers. There were some variations in gameplay, such as modes requiring you to hit certain scores or time limits, but it was all confined to one single player mode: the “Downhill Challenge.” Spanning multiple challenges across eight massive levels, this was the equivalent of the ‘career mode’ from the other games. Multiple multiplayer modes were included as well for up to four players, but without any sort of online functionality. But hey, this was before online gameplay on the Wii became a thing, so it’s excused.
The game had a somewhat barebones feel to it. Outside of the Downhill Challenge, there were no single player modes. The create-a-skater feature returns, albeit somewhat limited, much like the create-a-skater in Project 8, ironically. Outside of Tony himself, there were no other real characters. Everyone else fit some sort of stereotype: the jock, the pothead, the goth, the punk, they certainly didn’t get any points for variety here.
Controls were also simplified. Steering was done entirely by tilting the Wii remote left and right, and each of the number buttons combined with a direction on the d-pad allowed you to pull off your flip and grab tricks, or you could pull of harder special tricks by holding the ‘A’ button. Grabs and jumps were mapped to the same button, but they made it work; even the bert slide from American Wasteland returned with a more practical use. Pulling off tricks allowed you to fill up your special meter, which let you activate a quick boost by shaking the Wii remote. Downhill Jam had some good controls, even if they suffered the same fate as many early Wii titles in that the responsiveness was questionable more often than it should have been.
The levels themselves were huge. You may think that a game with only eight levels may seem light on content, but they did an admirable job stretching it out. Many of the stages in the Downhill Challenge only contained portions of each level, with the whole level, top-to-bottom, showing up more often near the end. Though it was a racing game at its core, the Hawk elements were prevalent; tricking allowed you to fill your special meter and boost ahead, you could grind through alternate pathways, and leap across long distances with enough speed. Still, it was unquestionably a racing game first and foremost, with a Hawk game second: perhaps the reason why not many fans hold it in high regard. Maybe it’s just better to look at it as its own thing instead of being part of the Tony Hawk franchise.
But it was the soundtrack which is why I hold Downhill Jam in such high regard. If you remember when I was talking about Project 8, I wasn’t satisfied with the soundtrack, and I expected Downhill Jam to have the same soundtrack; it would have made sense, with it being released at the same time. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m glad I was. The soundtrack only sported about 40 tracks, but they went for quality over quantity, sporting a heavier, most fast paced soundtrack than the earlier games. They ran the gamut, from old school punk (Descendants, Bad Brains) to more modern punk (Strike Anywhere, Lagwagon). They had multiple types of hard rock and metal, sporting bands like Motorhead, Iron Maiden, White Zombie, and Ministry. Best of all, they had a LOT of overly catchy tracks.
The hip hop selection was significantly less prevalent this time, but for someone like myself that was never a fan of the genre, it was a fair trade-off. I’d dare say that Downhill Jam had my favorite soundtrack in the entire series. I don’t even need to think about it.
Downhill Jam was a gamble that paid off, even if not many people these days remember it. The idea of taking a new approach to the series for a new console was the smartest decision they could have made. One year, two Hawk games. What a concept. 2007 went back to the ‘one game a year’ principle with Proving Ground, and it was also the year the series ended. Or, should have ended. Next week things get a little depressing.